Blu-ray: ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ & ‘Muppet Treasure Island’ Of Pirates & Pigs 2-Movie Collection

Ever since <em>The Muppet Movie revitalized the Muppet empire, muppet flicks have been making their way to Blu-ray. Muppet Treasure Island and The Great Muppet Caper have both been released on Blu-ray as a part of a new combo pack. When you hear combo pack, you might think you’re getting two movies on two discs. Nope. The second disc is a DVD since both flicks come on one disc. Before you squeal, remember that TV series often have three to four episodes on a single Blu-ray disc, while maintaining the video quality. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. But, we’ll get to that.

The Great Muppet Caper debuted in 1981, between the release of The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan. While The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan both serve as somewhat of an origin tale for the muppets, The Great Muppet Caper is more of a comedic, crime noir film.

Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear are investigative reporters for the Daily Chronicle. There is also a running gag about the two being identical twins, which is only noticeable when Fozzie has his hat on. Gonzo the Great is the third wheel in their trio, who serves as their photographer. He also just loves to take pictures of chickens. When the three head off to England, they end up in the middle of a jewelry heist. Kermit and Miss Piggy also meet for the “first time,” with Miss Piggy posing as famed fashion designer, Lady Holiday.

Muppet Treasure Island is a musical based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. This film was developed in the 90s, when the muppets were doing less original movies and more adaptations. While it’s an entertaining romp, seeing Tim Curry as Long John Silver, the story and musical numbers don’t have as much zing as some of the older muppet films. However, I still respect adaptations like this, which use notable kids’ icons to encourage children to read.

The HD transfer for The Great Muppet Caper is borderline abysmal. You’ll notice right at the opening credits that you might as well be watching this on a VHS tape. The colors are washed out and there are tons of artifacts. The hairs on Fozzie’s body have no definition or contrast at all. Where’s the quality control?

Oddly enough, Muppet Treasure Island has a much better transfer. This is unfortunate since The Muppet Caper is the more notable of the two movies. Also, as the muppets’ second movie, it deserves a video quality upgrade just for archival purposes.

It’s clear that whoever commissioned the release and transfer of these two films did little to no research on the muppets’ history. Instead of releasing a double-feature pack, The Great Muppet Caper deserved its own release. Muppet Treasure Island could have been released with The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. At least that would make sense since the two movies are adaptations and this is an anniversary year for The Wizard of Oz. Alas, such was not the case.

The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island [Blu-ray]

Starring: Frank Oz
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Release Date: December 14, 2013

Rating:
6 / 10

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ Extended Edition adds Tolkien tunes but little else

the hobbit an unexpected journeyPeter Jackson’s The Hobbit films have been taking a lot of flack in the press. First, the moviegoers griped when they heard the book would be split into three films: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again. After all, the Lord of the Rings trilogy actually consisted of three books, with one movie made for each, whereas The Hobbit was a single, shorter novel. Then, there were those viewers who disliked the film shown at 48fps (frames-per-second) – a dizzying experience for some. However, for lifelong Tolkien fans, more Tolkien is always great, just like more Star Wars is great – no matter how much the franchise is milked.

Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It was an entertaining walk through Middle Earth, grounded by Ian McKellen’s performance as Gandalf. No, I didn’t watch it in 48fps. I don’t go in for new cinematic tricks when they hit they screen. 3D and IMAX are all just added novelties at the end of the day. I just want to enjoy the story. If it’s really good, I’ll want to enjoy it over-and-over again on Blu-ray. Movies like The Man of Steel and An Unexpected Journey seem long in the theater, but at home you can enjoy that length at your leisure.

The latest extended release of the Blu-ray release adds about another 12-minutes to the movie. The added footage brings in just a little more dwarf antics and revelry. For instance, both the dwarf scenes in the Shire and in Rivendell are longer. The dwarves show how little they care about those bourgeois Elvish traditions. They cause a raucous at dinner, singing “The Man in the Moon,” while having a food fight. They also run around naked. We also get the Goblin King lumbering around singing a song in Goblin Town, while the dwarves are tied up. As a fan of the novels, it’s great to see more of the Tolkien rhymes and songs added to the mix.

However, if you already own The Hobbit release, the Extended Edition does little to add to the story or broaden the world of Middle Earth. After all, this is one novel being split into three movies so there’s not much you can expand on – even from the Tolkien’s additional appendices. There are new supplemental, making-of appendices, which present of wealth of bonus material.

Overall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a welcome addition to any Tolkien fan’s library. But if you’ve already got the Blu-ray, there’s not much reason to pick up the Extended release. Chances are, in a few years there will be a boxed set that contains the Extended release of all three Hobbit flicks.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [Blu-ray]

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett
Studio: New Line Home Video/Warner Bros
Release Date: November 5, 2013

Rating:
8 / 10

‘Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year’ Blu-ray – It’s Time to Give Pooh More

Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh YearWinnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year has made its way to Blu-ray. It goes without saying that Winnie the Pooh tales make for great cross-generational viewing. There’s always a lesson to be a learned and an adventure to discover when Pooh, Tigger, Roo, Eeyore, Piglet and the rest of Christopher Robin’s friends get together. I still cherish all those Saturday mornings watching The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh as a kid. However, as far as holiday specials go, the Winnie the Pooh tales tend to fall short.

When it comes to holiday favorites for kids, there are a few classic tales that come to mind. First, I always think of The Christmas Story. Who can forget the infamous double dog dare or the Ralphie’s coveted red ryder beebee gun? Next, comes the holiday Scrooge tales. For me, Mickey’s Christmas Carol and the Muppet Christmas Carol rank at the top – with the Muppet Christmas Carol winning out. Muppet tunes with Michael Caine’s Scrooge make for an unforgettable combo. Finally, there’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. People actually sell tiny Charlie Brown Christmas trees during the holidays just because of this movie.

But, where is Pooh during the holidays? The honey-loving bear has Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too and Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year. However, neither film ranks high as a memorable holiday feature. Why is that when Even Shrek the Halls has its own time to shine?

Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year was first released in 2002. At the time, it was a combination of a new Pooh tale as well as a mash-up of past Pooh adventures to deliver a full-length feature.

The story starts out with Pooh hiding Piglet’s gift. Then, Pooh’s friends meet up to discuss past Christmas tales. This is when the new adventure cuts over to the old adventure seen in Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too. After, you’ve watched the old adventure, the story cuts back and Pooh and his friends exchange gifts, only for Pooh to realize that he’s forgotten where he hid Piglets gift.

Days float by without Pooh finding Piglet’s gift and before long it’s New Years. The group assembles together again to discuss old stories, this time it’s a story about Rabbit wanting to move away because he’s had enough of the gang. While its sort of a new tale, told as an old one, you may get confused since you just saw Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too.

Pooh compilations like this are always fun to watch, but are also a little annoying. I just want a full, original Pooh adventure without any throwback material. This happened in The Tigger Movie as well.

Pooh deserves a memorable, full-length holiday feature or at least a new half-hour special that doesn’t feel like just another Saturday morning episode. Don’t get me wrong. This may feel like a rant, but I actually enjoy the animated film. I just feel that Pooh deserves more. And that includes musical numbers that rival Disney’s best.

Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year [Blu-ray]

Starring: Jim Cummings, Peter Cullen
Studio: Disney
Release Date: November 5, 2013

Rating:
7 / 10

‘Iron Man 3′ Blu-ray: One of the Best in Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ Franchise

After rewatching Iron Man 3, I have to say, I just don’t think this particular movie series could survive without the comedic genius and timing of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Everything from Tony’s relationship with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and new found friendship in Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) to Iron Man’s superhero exploits only work because Downey Jr. can crack jokes under fire without being a jerk. He’s a conflicted hero, and Downey Jr. helps to make this Iron Man movie one of the best in Marvel’s Avengers franchise.

The events in Iron Man 3 spin out of The Avengers movie. Tony is suffering from PTSD after the aliens attacked New York. Now, he’s having problems sleeping and it’s putting a strain on his relationship with Pepper. It’s a very common, work-related problem that is easy to empathize with. Whether you put long hours in on the job or you’re a veteran, work stress can easily seep over into your personal life. Even though Tony spends his nights working on new Iron Man suits, we forget that we’re watching a superhero movie for the moment and just see a man who is suffering. Sure, he cracks the occasional cavalier joke, but Downey Jr. has a way of making us see Tony’s pain lingering behind every sarcastic remark.

Of course, this is a superhero, and it’s not long before our villain appears in the form of The Mandarin, played by Sir Ben Kingsley. His portrayal of the Mandarin is a little creepy and cliche. Right away, if you are a comic book fan, you’re thinking that this Asian villain has been white washed like so many other film characters (I’m looking at M Night Shyamalan and The Last Airbender). However, there are several unique traits about this particular villain that’s worth investing your time into watching. Hopefully, if you haven’t seen the movie so far you haven’t caught the spoiler on the nuances of this particular Mandarin.

Iron Man 3 balances big fight scenes with several strong, introspective moments. Director Shane Black really gives us time to get inside the psyche of Tony Stark. Tony’s mental stress is taking a toll on his body, as well as his personal life. You really get to savor Tony’s evolution as a person since the first Iron Man film. Coincidentally, there are several moments where Tony isn’t even wearing the suit while Iron Man is fighting. This gives us the sense that it’s not Iron Man that’s the hero, but really the man behind the costume who pulls the strings.

Some kudos should be given to Disney/Marvel on the Blu-ray release for adding in the Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter short. This film short spins out of the Captain America: The First Avenger movie, focusing on Peggy’s character after the events in the movie. As diverse as this country and world is, we still can’t seem to get a good comic script out there that portrays different races and genders in a leading role. It’s nice to see Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, but she’s really just The Avengers without her own film.

Iron Man 3 [Blu-ray]

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Release Date: September 24, 2013

Rating:
8 / 10

‘Nashville: The Complete First Season’ will Make Disbelievers Reassess their Thoughts on Country Music

nashvilleGrowing up in New York, I can’t say that I’ve ever been a big fan of country music. I never hated it, the songs were just a little too laid back, folksy and depressing to relate to. But that’s how many songs are when you’re a kid. Rock, alternative, hip hop, metal and punk were the musical genres of rebellion – not the music of grown-up doldrums and gripe. Jilted lovers, tax-man grumblings and work stress would all come much later in life. When Nashville debuted, I finally had a chance to reassess my relationship with country. And for that, I’m grateful.

Nashville: The Complete First Season centers on the careers of Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), a long-time country singer whose career has come crashing to a standstill, and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), a young pop-country icon who has a way with the kids like Hannah Montana. When Rayna’s going through a financial crisis of sorts, her management suggests that she partner with Juliette on a tour, where Rayna would have second billing to her younger counterpart. Unfortunately, Rayna’s not having it, especially since she doesn’t respect Juliette or her music.

Juliette may not be as wacky as Miley Cirus, but she’s something of a temptress when it comes to Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten). He’s Rayna’s old flame, before she got married. Now, that you know the setup, you know the deal. This is a soap opera, plain and simple. You’ve seen the archetypes and love-triangle twists before. The forced monkey wrenches thrown in to hurt the characters and create drama are all too familiar. There’s also a text-book corporate villain of sorts, in the form of Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe), Rayna’s father. Watching Wyatt trying to foil his daughter’s (Connie Britton) career comeback is like watching Chris Cooper as Tex Richman in The Muppets – except this villain doesn’t need two cronies in his corner to do a maniacal laugh for him.

Caricatures and predictable plot devices aside, there is something deeply honest about this story. This isn’t Dawson’s Creek or 90210 style drama. No, this grown-up country problems. And, that’s where the story and characters excel. It doesn’t take long for you to develop a bond to Rayna. Britton does an amazing job of pulling you into her character’s woes. Rayna’s marital issues, financial problems and jealous thoughts all make you empathize with her more – especially after you hear her sing.

Britton does an amazing job with each song. While the series isn’t a musical like Glee, the songs do tell a major part of the story. Every time a song cues up, you know that you’re witnessing a major shift in the plot. Plus, the songs are just relaxing to listen to.

Panettiere’s character is less relatable in this story. She’s a little stuck up, arrogant and irritating to watch. Juliette’s mother is introduced as a drug addict so that you can try to empathize more with Juliette. However, Panettiere’s attempts at crying and sorrow pale in comparison to Britton. You just don’t feel the same grown up problems expressed on Britton’s brow in Panettiere.

A sub plot floats around with Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen). She’s kind of the next Rayna. While her story isn’t nearly as interesting, listening to Bowen sing is an utter delight.

The DVD release comes with a few behind the scene featurettes. “Nashville comes to Nashville” is a tour of the city, where the series is filmed. Other behind-the-scenes featurettes focus on the actors as well as the musical talents and numbers.

Nashville: The Complete First Season [DVD]

Starring: Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Clare Bowen |
Studio: ABC Studios
Release Date: September 17, 2013

Rating:
7.5 / 10

‘Now You See Me’ Blu-ray: The Magic’s Been Extended, But the Plot Still goes Nowhere

Now You See Me

Now You See Me is one of those movies that you want to love. Put living legends Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine on the screen together and you can’t go wrong – especially with a little Mark Ruffalo sprinkled on top. But things can go awry when your top three players have muddled story arcs and the Four Horsemen that the movie thrusts into the limelight leave you wishing that they remained in obscurity. If you can turn on your blinders to thoughtful characters, then perhaps you can let yourself be amused by the wild magical romps that get bigger and more unbelievable at every turn. I was able to do it, but hey, I think magic is kind of cool even when the plot in this case isn’t.

J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are four less than mediocre illusionists. When a mystery benefactor decides to turn them into celebrities, the group catapults from performing street shows to the Las Vegas spotlight. They also get tagged with the illustrious group name – the Four Horsemen.

The immediate problem with the story is that everything Director Louis Leterrier asks you to invest in is tossed out the window once introduced. A secret society of magicians is hinted at but forgotten. Freeman and Caine both fizzle out, just after a potentially heated scene, which ends up meaning absolutely nothing. Freeman’s character is so loosely wrapped up that it just doesn’t make sense and almost seems like it was thrown in at the last moment. And the Four Horsemen are simply a bunch of slimy characters that are never really appealing. At one point, you may think that they have some kind of redeeming qualities, but that’s tossed out the window in favor of just being totally self-absorbed.

The only character that sort of makes sense throughout the film is Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent). She just kind of has an innocence that makes sense. Laurent even makes the forced romantic tension with Ruffalo seem like a worthwhile plot thread to follow.

On a positive note, the nefarious magical capers are pretty cool to watch. There’s a feeling of watching the Usual Suspects or The Game when you see this movie, just don’t expect a phenomenal payoff. Still, it’s great to think about a secret cabal of magicians that use illusions to take over the world. It’s something right out of a comic book. Franco actually comes off as some kind of magical Spider-Man in one of his later scenes. Even the wacky car chase and subsequent explanation are pretty cool to watch. Too bad the plot always gets in the way.

For die-hard magic fans, the Extended Blu-ray release offers a wealth of bonus features. Probably the best two are the featurettes: “A Brief History of Magic” and “Now You See Me Revealed.” If you’ve ever wanted a quick primer on the inception of illusions, mentalism or escape tricks, then you’ll find it in “A Brief History of Magic.” The behind-the-scenes featurette is also a nice little addition. It’s good to see the actors learning how to do the tricks and adds the “realism” of the magic tricks and slight-of-hand tactics used in the movie.

Now You See Me [Blu-ray]

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Isla Fisher
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Release Date: September 3, 2013

Rating:
6 / 10

Tumultuous, Family Chaos Thrives in ‘Once Upon a Time’ Season 2 (Blu-ray)

once upon a timeThe introduction of magic to Storybrooke was a warm and destructive welcome in Once Upon a Time Season 2. The second season was filled with highs, lows and a lot of tumultuous, inter-family chaos. Although we discovered most of our characters fairy tale identities, new mysteries unfolded with some of our beloved characters, while more worlds were added to the over-arching mythos. The Blu-ray release collects the entire season, also giving us a few meaty bonus features that explore the muddled and magical world of the Storybrooke kingdom.

In the first season of Once Upon a Time, Storybrooke was always a dull place. Outside of Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle), the characters didn’t have the same zing they had in fairy tale world. What kept us watching was the Lost-style mystery in discovering the real identity of everyone in town. The unfolding origin tale was always exhilarating, even when the low-quality green screen got in the way. Who could forget that scene with King Midas that looked like a college After Effects project?

However, with the truth out and magic running rampant, Storybrooke ended up becoming more exciting than the fairy tale world in Season 2. Charming (Josh Dallas) walked around with a gun, people got hit by cars and Regina (Lana Parrilla) went on a non-stop, spell-casting bender. It was exciting to watch, especially when fairy tale world started introducing new characters that we didn’t care much about – like Mulan (Jamie Chung) and Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger).

Thankfully, just when fairy tale world was starting to get dull, Cora (Barbara Hershey) and Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) brought some much needed tension and a lot of excitement to the mix. Hook’s origin and relationship to Rumpelstiltskin was brilliantly executed. Also, watching Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Emma (Jennifer Morrison) team up was something of a magical, mother daughter team-up that was applause worthy.

Unfortunately, Season 2 did have its pitfall moments. The writers seemed to play around too much with Gold and Regina’s characters, arguably the most likable characters for their twisted villainy. Sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re evil. But, it’s only fun to watch the two when they’re playing the roles of the bad guy and gal.

The second half of the season does get confusing at times as new relationships are discovered. There is also a trip to Neverland that may just change the way you look at Peter Pan and Captain Hook.

The bonus features are worth watching in their entirety. The Blu-ray has an exclusive look at the “Fractured Family Tree” that unfolds in Season 2; it’s narrated by Modern Family star Sarah Hyland. My favorite special feature is the Good Morning Storybrooke show. It comically explores the relationships and personalities of some of the secondary characters, like Grumpy/Dreamy, who don’t get as much time during the main show. Community star Yvette Nicole Brown and The League star Paul Scheer serve as hosts to the fictitious show-within-a-show.

Overall, Once Upon a Time Season 2 is a great watch. The season finale will have you reeling from a few tearjerker moments as well as intriguing revelations. Here’s hoping that in Once Upon a Time Season 3, Regina and Gold find a way to maintain their cold-calculating edge.

Once Upon a Time Season 2 [Blu-ray]

Starring: Jennifer Morrison, Ginnifer Goodwin, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Jared Gilmore
Studio: ABC Studios
Release Date: Aug 13, 2013

Rating:
8 / 10

Throwback on Blu: Enter the Dragon 40th Anniversary

In the realm of Martial Arts movies, Enter the Dragon is as classic a movie as Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I’m sure that will make some movie aficionados scream balderdash, but for genre fans such is the case. The movie captures the ideals and philosophy the late Bruce Lee developed in founding his unique Martial Art style, Jeet Kune Do. As Lee says in the movie, “You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.” Now celebrating its 40th Anniversary, Enter the Dragon remains a staple film in both the Action and Kung-Fu flick genres.

In Enter the Dragon, Lee agrees to go attend a Martial Arts tournament hosted by Han (Kien Shih), a former student of the Shaolin temple where Lee trained. When Han left the Shaolin temple, he used the teachings to start a worldwide syndicate of corruption. It actually sounds funny writing Han’s character description.

The movie is very self aware of the cliché archetype. Jim Kelly, who plays a Martial Artist named Williams, actually calls attention to it. When Han confronts Williams later in the movie, Williams says, “Man, you come right out of a comic book.” It’s one of those great movie lines that are perfectly quotable without sounding forced. In addition to restoring honor to the Shaolin temple, Lee takes up the mission as a spy to support a cross government effort to expose Han’s illicit dealings.

The plot might not be too deep. However, never does it feel like an over-the-top action movie or your run-of-the-mill Kung-Fu film. The three lead characters of Lee, Roper (John Saxon) and Williams are rich with character development, back-story and personality. From their dialogue to their mannerisms, the acting instantly draws you in. Of course, Bruce Lee’s face and expressions are instantly magnetic. His emotional switches put you right in the heart of each fight.

One of the best fights is when Bruce Lee faces Han’s right-hand man, Oharra (Robert Wall). Bruce and Han face off against each other, three times. Each time, Bruce delivers a single punch. In your average movie, it would seem like a bland start to a fight sequence. However, in watching Lee’s eyes, you can sense him absorbing Oharra’s every breath. The intense, measured silence of this sequence says it all about Lee’s prowess as an actor and fighter. He brought a reality and commitment to every fight that won the hearts of audiences worldwide.

Truthfully, Enter the Dragon is one of the most progressive movies of its time. It featured three actors of different races all on equal footing. Williams wasn’t merely a black actor cast as canon fodder (nor did he die first), but rather he was a significant player and threat in the movie. His character motivates subsequent choices by Roper. The film also shows the racism and profiling of police in black communities at the time of this film. Front to back, it’s smartly written without forcing a message.

The 40th Anniversary Blu-ray release is a must for collectors. Truthfully, the last copy of Enter the Dragon I had was the DVD release. The HD release is a significant step up, without any artifacts. The audio has a superb 5.1 surround mix. So you can hear some of those great, over exaggerated Kung-Fu sound effects.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any new special features. These are all archival videos that you have seen before on prior releases. They include snippets of an interview with Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell. However, the interview isn’t shown in its entirety. You actually have to click to go threw each mini snippet, which only features about thirty seconds of Linda’s responses. If you don’t have the DVD, you’ll get to see Lee’s famous interview, where he discusses Jeet Kune Do and his life philosophy. That’s probably my favorite of the re-released documentary segments.

Overall, this is an excellent release. Enter the Dragon is easily one of the top three Martial Arts movies of all time. However, for the 40th anniversary, it would have been nice to get a new featurette with family and friends reflecting on Bruce Lee’s impact on movie and culture 40 years later.

Enter the Dragon 40th Anniversary [Blu-ray]

Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Ahna Capri, Bob Wall, Shih Kienc
Directed by: Robert Clouse
Studio: Warner Bros Home Video
Release Date: June 11, 2013

Rating:
9.0 / 10

Throwback on Blu: My Neighbor Totoro

There’s something uniquely pure about watching My Neighbor Totoro on Blu-ray 25 years after its initial release. This was the first Japanese-based film from famed writer/director Hayao Miyazaki. He wanted to show audiences and production houses that movies didn’t need violence to succeed. It was an idealistic concept from Studio Ghibli, a company still in its infancy when My Neighbor Totoro was developed. Although the film is not ranked as high as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, the beauty and innocence of Japan was forever immortalized in Totoro.

My Neighbor Totoro starts off when Tatsuo Kusukabe moves his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, to the countryside to be closer to their mother, who is suffering from a long-term illness. The story doesn’t have an over-arching plot. There are no villains to face or super cure to be found. It’s merely about life. Two city girls discover the wonders of the country. Simple things like a babbling brook and lush, rolling hills are a wondrous adventure. You can consider it the Japan’s Alice in Wonderland, minus the threat of your head getting chopped off.

It isn’t until about halfway through the movie that we actually meet Totoro, the forest spirit. And when we do meet him, it’s in two different miniature forms. The forest spirit only makes itself known to the children and typically only at times when they need help or just a little mental support and encouragement. Totoro isn’t the typical Japanese folklore creature, based on a panda or a cat, but rather something that is more like a big round bear with cat-like ears.

The movie does what most children’s movies fail to do. It creates a wholly immersive world for children that isn’t condescending, but fully understands and relates to a child’s emotional sensibilities. The major conflict isn’t some villain that needs to be vanquished or some obstacle that needs to be defeated. Instead we get a young girl, lost in new place, who just wants to deliver some corn to her mother in the hospital.

Studio Ghibli does a marvelous job in bringing rural Japan to life, perhaps better than any live-action movie. This story feels timeless thanks to Ghibli’s animation and the 1958 setting.

The Blu-ray special features don’t include any new anniversary material or new reflections on the movie and its impact on the direction of Studio Ghibli. If you haven’t picked up the DVD in the past, you’ll get a few behind-the-scenes interviews with Miyazaki and his composer, Joe Hisaishi.

My Neighbor Totoro remains in a special class in Studio Ghibli’s rich library. It’s funny that 25 years ago Miyazaki was concerned with violence in films so he gave us Totoro to take us back to the simple joys of the countryside. 25 years later, we still rely on Totoro to give us that much-needed family escape from guns and violence.

My Neighbor Totoro [Blu-ray]

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, Pat Carroll, Lea Salonga
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Studio: Studio Ghibli – Walt Disney Home Entertainment
Release Date: May 21, 2013

Rating:
9 / 10

Throwback Blu: National Lampoon’s Vacation 30th Anniversary

For many, National Lampoon’s Vacation is a classic comedy of cross-country, family antics. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Warner Bros has released a new Blu-ray release, accompanied by a 90-minute documentary from the Biography Channel.

In case you’re not familiar with the film, it features Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold. Clark is kind of the boy who never grew up. He decides to take his family on a two-week cross-country trip to Wally World – just imagine a theme park where Bullwinkle J. Moose was the mascot. Murphy’s Law takes effect before the family has a chance to leave their hometown, and everything that could go wrong goes horribly wrong. Family members and dogs die, hostages are taken and sexual indiscretions threaten an oddly happy home.

Unfortunately, I never grew up with Vacation. This film isn’t a raucous comedy. The clothing styles and mannerisms of the early 80s take you back to a slower, simpler and deeply suburban time. However, there is something overwhelmingly relatable about the films simplicity. The Griswold family sticks together throughout uncountable misfortunes.

This is a family story with a lot of heart. Clark takes every misfortune in stride with a hearty smile. It’s almost disturbing, but Chase pulls it off with his trademark wit. You’re constantly waiting for one of the family members to blow up and start an argument, but they never do. Clark’s wife may suggest flying, but if they can’t, they can’t. The Griswolds may lose all of their money and be stranded in the middle of nowhere, but they’re Griswolds and that’s perfectly okay. Que sera sera.

Vacation grew on me. Not in the way of a contemporary comedy, but more for its relatable family archetypes. There’s something instantly relatable about each of these family members. My favorite scene is when Clark interrupts his children, while they are playing video games. He shoes them the travel map on the computer as if it were a video game. Then the son tries to shoot down the family car, while the sister protects it. All the while, Clark is reprimanding his son and thanking his daughter.

If you already picked up the Blu-ray release in 2010, there’s probably no reason to pick this version up – unless you want to see the documentary. The “Inside Story” doc features interviews with all of the major Vacation cast members, except for Randy Quaid. The documentary is a one-time watch, which will surely delight fans of the film. Although I’m not a long-time fan of the franchise, I understand the importance of cast reunions on an anniversary release. Personally, I’d do back flips for a cast reunion on Trading Places and Coming to America – two of my favorite comedies of all time.

National Lampoon’s Vacation 30th Anniversary [Blu-ray]

Starring: Beverly D’angelo, Chevy Chase, Randy Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall
Directed by: Harold Ramis
Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: May 21, 2013

Rating:
8 / 10